Is It Wrong to Market Even *Healthy* Food to Kids?

That’s the contention put forth by public health lawyer Michele Simon (Eat Drink Politics) and Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in a recent article.

Noting — as I often have on this blog — that cognitive deficits make children especially vulnerable to the persuasive power of advertising, Simon and Linn object to any use of cartoon characters and other standard tactics for marketing to kids, even for objectively healthy foods such as this:

kung fu edamame

Here’s the crux of their position:

Some advocates argue that deceiving children to eat healthy food is good strategy. But such tactics are actually harmful. A primary goal for advocates should be for children to develop a healthy relationship to food. Foisting character-branded products on children undermines that effort. Marketing to children does more than sell products — it inculcates habits and behaviors. Marketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.

Simon and Linn then point to some countries in Europe with bans (to varying degrees) on children’s advertising and assert that “[w]ith enough political will, lawmakers could pass new laws banning marketing to children without running afoul of the First Amendment.”

Putting aside First Amendment issues (which are not, as the authors seem to imply in the article, a matter of settled law),  I do fervently hope that someday our kids can live in a commercial-free world.  But, speaking as a realist, I also think it will be a very long time before the necessary “political will” manifests itself in this country.

Let’s not forget that in 2011 even purely voluntary children’s advertising guidelines — a far cry from an outright ad ban — fell victim to the food industry’s powerful lobby.  Worse, as the Reuters news agency noted in a 2012 special report on food industry lobbying and childhood obesity:

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Until such a time as we might have a blanket ban on advertising to children, the processed and fast food industries are reaching our kids at an unprecedented rate – to the tune of almost $2 billion in annual expenditures — and not just through traditional channels such as television, print and school sponsorships, but also through new media such as mobile devices, “advergaming,” interactive campaigns and contests, YouTube videos and more.  And, almost invariably, such advertisements promote unhealthy foods.

Faced with this grossly uneven playing field, I’m not especially troubled by putting Dora the Explorer on a bag of carrot sticks if it helps, even in a small way, to rectify that balance.  On her Eat Drink Politics Facebook page, Simon expressed concern that such manipulation overrides children’s innate hunger cues, but as I responded there:

I don’t believe that positive messaging for whole foods is ever going to override hunger cues.  In other words, I don’t believe any amount of “Sponge-Bobbing” of spinach is going to make kids gorge on spinach. I think overeating has to do with the addictive properties of highly processed food, a la Michael Moss’s “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”

Ideally, though, I’d want to spend less time putting cartoon characters on any products and far more time teaching kids media literacy, arming them with the ability to see through all attempts to manipulate them via advertising and marketing.  That’s because, even in countries with children’s advertising restrictions in place, the food industry — surprise, surprise — still manages to reach children.  As the Guardian newspaper reported just last week, the World Health Organization found that, despite a British ban on the advertising of foods with high salt, fat and sugar content during children’s programs, there has been an overall increase in junk food advertising at other times of the day, such as the “family viewing” period between 6pm and 10.30pm when  shows popular with all age groups, like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor,” are aired.

Putting aside the flaws in the British ad ban (which, the WHO report notes, is not as strong as blanket bans in a few other EU countries), it’s self-evident that no amount of legislation could entirely insulate children from food advertising in today’s world, where even the inside of the bathroom stall is now considered fair game for marketers.

For that reason, I recently was motivated to help teach young children about food industry manipulation by creating my own kids’ video about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory.”  Garnering almost 11,000 views in the five weeks since its release, I’m  gratified by the positive response it’s received so far.

One homemade video is just a tiny drop in the bucket, of course, but there are many others like me out there focusing primarily on the “inoculation” side of the children’s advertising equation. Parents and teachers can access entirely free media literacy curricula from sources like PBS’s “Don’t Buy It” program, the UK-based Media Smart website, as well as the exciting programs and curricula created by the Yale Prevention Research Center under the leadership of Dr. David Katz.  (In a future post I’ll be sharing more about the latter, which have already reached hundreds of thousands of children.)

Ad bans and media literacy instruction are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I certainly stand with Simon and Linn in their desire to limit harmful media messages directed at kids.  But until our legislators are able to resist the allure of food industry contributions and influence, I’m perfectly willing to take some pages from Big Food’s playbook if doing so can help push children in the right direction when it comes to healthy eating.

But what do you think about all this?  Is it wrong to use cartoon characters and similar methods to encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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  1. says

    This is an issue that really interests me since we are marketing Better Bites in order to get kids to choose healthier options like fruit and vegetables at the concession stands instead of junk food. Ideally, I would choose no marketing to kids but since the junk food companies show no signs of cutting back, we don’t have an environment where children eat based on internal hunger cues. I don’t want to cede all the external hunger cues to the junk food companies.

  2. theresa says

    I believe the bottom line is that no matter what the child wants, no matter how many commercials they see whether it be for Dora carrot sticks or Dora cupcakes it is the ultimate responsibility of the parent to either buy the product or not. I certainly do not allow my children to dictate my shopping list. Parents need to take control and stop being worried that their child will be upset if they don’t get something they want. Be a parent and say no if that is what you want to say. Stop blaming commercials (or anything else) on if your child gets food you don’t want them to have. You are in charge of what you buy-not your child.

    • says

      The problem with this line of thinking is it ignores just how much more frequently parents are required to say no when kids are advertised to. Children should not have to live in a “land of no,” and parents should not be driven to distraction by the constant barrage. It’s one thing to have to say no to the television, quite another to have to say no in the park, at the store, at the library, at the school, on the computer, on the sidewalk, (all places advertising has wormed its way into) etc., etc.

      As parents, not only is this a problem for our kids, but WE have a right to a certain amount of peace and quiet.

      There’s a problem I think you’re missing here, Bettina: the flip side of using licensed characters to advertise healthy foods is what the characters are actually advertising. TV watching isn’t healthy either – but it’s being promoted by carrots…the logical conclusion is that it MUST be OK, right?

    • Nancy Huehnergarth says


      Your viewpoint is quite naive, IMO. Having raised two children with the second off for college in the fall, I can tell you that at a certain point (the tween years) you cannot control everything that goes into your children’s mouths. Kids have spending money, they hang with friends, they purchase food at school (sometimes food you wouldn’t serve at home.) Schools still allow much junk food to be given out as rewards and served at in-class parties. Children spend time at other homes and will certainly encounter junk food there. And since it is, arguably addictive, they will crave more. I am very comfortable blaming food industry marketing tactics for making my children nag me incessantly for junk food — even if I only purchased it rarely, as a treat (so it wouldn’t be the forbidden fruit). Without industry’s 24/7 laser-like marketing focus on trying to get my kids hooked on sugary drinks, sugary cereals and other non-nutritious junk food, I doubt my kids would have even asked for the junk. Trying to put the blame on parents entirely is an industry tactic that you seem to agree with. If marketing didn’t work so well, Big Food and Soda wouldn’t spend billions yearly to target our kids.

    • C baker says

      Corporations don’t spend billions in advertising so you can “just say no”. Advertising uses science and psychology and very clever people to wear down your resistance and that of your kids.

      (Plus, you know, kids aren’t only with you all day.)

  3. says

    This is a tough one. I too would prefer a world with no marketing to kids, even for healthy nutritious food.

    On the other hand, if the only reason why a child is drawn to a product on the supermarket shelf is the fact that it has a favorite cartoon character on the package, it seems helpful for a parent to be able to say no to that product, but yes to another, healthier food item like baby carrots sporting a similar cartoon image. There was a time in my sons’ lives when they would have been happy to have me buy them ANYTHING with Thomas the Tank Engine on it.

    On the other hand, I was that mean mom who never allowed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers into the house at all, under any circumstances, so maybe my opinion doesn’t count.

  4. says

    One of the tactics of the fast food industry is to pump millions into a PR company called “Consumer Freedom” to spread the message that childhood obesity is all the parents’ fault, that industry bears no responsibility for exploiting the vulnerabilities of children, and that those who oppose industry tactics are somehow unpatriotic and opposed to “freedom”. So it’s likely that “Theresa” is either being paid by the industry to comment on blogs like this, or is doing it for free after being taken in by industry spin.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Erin: I let your comment through but I would not automatically condemn Theresa as either an industry shill or someone who is easily duped. Whether or not you and I agree with this view, there are many well educated, well meaning people who do sincerely believe that this is entirely a matter of parental responsibility and they are philosophically opposed to ad bans. I personally know a few such people and certainly wouldn’t malign them personally for holding those views.

      • theresa says

        Thanks for the support. I can assure you I am not being paid to comment on blogs-although it would seem a nice way to earn money-nor am I being taken in.
        Actually I usually never comment on things because of people like Erin. It seems that everyone must have the exact same opinion or be subjected to rude people saying insulting things.
        I think I’ll go back to just reading the posts and keep my opinions to myself.

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          Please don’t do that! I welcome all viewpoints here and while that might mean that occasionally someone who *is* paid by industry slips through, so be it.

  5. says

    I believe that parents must make it a priority to be critical of marketing, and to teach our kids to eat healthy foods. Marketing is all about setting up associations, to persuade customers to consume your product. That iz exactly what I do at my dinner table every night! When I make split pea soup, I c all it Shrek soup to get skeptical 3 year ols to try it with a positive attitude. My kids are great adventure eaters, mostly because I have a big bag of tricks to encourage them to eat whole, natural foods. If companies market whole foods that way, well then they are making my job easier. I also think it’s counter productive to stop companies from marketing whole foods for a profit. If companies find a way to make money by getting kids to want veggies, veggies will be distributed to more outlets. For cheaper. That’s probably good, too.

  6. Janet says

    This is honestly a very hard topic. Bettina, I applaud you on approaching it so well. Lets think of what we are really trying to do here. Why does it matter if, for example, carrots are advertised using a cartoon carrot? Take Popeye. The famous cartoon is advertising spinach. I know that when I was a child, I was introduced to spinach through Pop Eye. Now my parents were not the healthiest eaters around. Common dinners ranged from frozen lasagna to frozen chicken strips. Occasionally something made from scratch, using fresh ingredients was created. I know I am straying away from the point now, but what I mean to say is that I believe that we should continue advertising as it gets kids to the table. They are so sucked into shows- if Disney advertises fresh fruit, my kids want fresh fruit.

    I can see how some of you might think this is an issue, but we need to approach one topic at a time. Isn’t getting kids to eat healthier a good thing, no matter how the message was gotten across? We are spending too much time focusing on these little things when the main point we want to get across to the kids is how to live a healthy lifestyle

  7. says

    Thoughtful blog. Studies show that marketing works, for both unhealthy and healthy food. Problem is that most marketing now is for unhealthy food. We need to work to make healthy eating fun and appealing to kids in a variety of ways, including through education, promotion, how the food is presented, what foods are most readily available (like getting junk food out of schools), and price.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      I want to thank all who’ve commented here and also let you know that Michele Simon has another post on this subject here. See also my comment on that post.

  8. says

    This is why I strive for a media free home, and chose a Waldorf school for my son. That said, I don’t know if I agree that the above food, for example, is healthy. I wouldn’t want my child eating raw soybeans any more than I’d want him to eat potato chips. And fortunately, he hasn’t had either.

    With no regulation in the US, though, I think there’s really no solution to the problem of marketing any sort of packaged food product to children. I’m fortunate to be in Eastern Europe with my son this summer where we can continue our tradition of buying food at markets (not stores), and avoiding almost all processed/packaged food.

  9. says

    Well, the fact be noted and the truth be said: advertising is too powerful a concept, even for adults to decipher, not to talk of subjecting our younger ones to the overpowering influence of advertising. I am of the opinion that, as rightly pointed out, a kind of a middle ground can be found on the entire issue without running foul of the First Amendment.

    A similar feat has been achieved in some of the countries of the European Union and we can as well do the same, or even better. Although profits are good for the economy, I am always up for anything that will secure the future of our kids, the real leaders of tomorrow.


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